Prayer In William Faulkner's Light In August

2364 words - 9 pages

   "I decline to accept the end of man...I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."  -William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1949


      William Faulkner illustrates many dimensions of prayer in Light in August: his characters avoid it, abuse it, embrace it, and blame it. In every case, Faulkner portrays prayer's power on the psyche. His fictional world seems Godless, yet his characters' struggle to prevail through prayer. Joanna Burden, Gail Hightower, and Joe Christmas exemplify three different approaches to prayer. Joanna turns toward prayer shortly before she is murdered; Hightower turns from it and finally feels liberated before his symbolic death; and Christmas, who is murdered in the end, prays throughout the novel. In comparing these three, Faulkner rejects pompous prayers and advocates for authenticity. Faulkner suggests that it is better to avoid prayer altogether, like Lena Grove, the happy pagan, than to be stunted by false prayer, like Hightower. To highlight these extremes, Faulkner fuses his novel with tensions between Judeo-Christianity and paganism, filling his characters with an urge to somehow find something permanent.


      First, Joanna wrestles with her faith, but her shift toward prayer brings pride and prejudice. Faulkner's first mention of prayer in reference to Joanna actually comes through Joe: he observes her longing to meet God on her own terms and her struggle to do so: "She wants to prays, but she don't know how to do that either" (Faulkner 261). Faulkner intends for this passage to illustrate the intensity of prayer. Her lover can detect her unspoken inclination toward prayer. A short time later, Faulkner notes that Joanna is resisting this urge: " 'I'm not ready to pray yet,' " she admits aloud, " 'Dear God, let me be damned a little longer, a little while' " (264). This, her first prayer, remains her most honest; in fact, it is one of the most poignant prayers of the novel. She confesses to a human impulse that few articulate: the desire to sin now and be saved later. She wants to believe in Christmas' concept of "a life of healthy and normal sin" but deep down, she knows sin is detrimental (Faulkner 260). In asking her Creator for a little more damnation, she stumbles upon her latent longing to create. But this burst of fervor fades when she is forced to confront reality: her pregnancy and her unstable relationship with Christmas. She cannot afford to prolong her damnation, so Joanna reverts to her old self, lecturing her lover on his need to attend law school and urging him to repent (Brooks 90). Her old self is tainted by her father's racist doctrine and it poisons her attempts to serve blacks (Brooks 88). That poisoned childhood surfaces when she kneels...

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